More to anti-western violence by Muslims than an offensive film
ANALYSIS:While religious fanatics are involved in the current protests, they are also inspired by US policies that alienate millions in Muslim world
THE PAST week has seen an apparent flaring up of anti-western violence in the Muslim world. On September 11th, the US ambassador to Libya was killed along with three other embassy personnel. Within days there were attacks on US embassies in Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere.
The ostensible cause of all of this was the emergence into public view, courtesy of YouTube, of a previously obscure and virulently anti-Islamic film entitled The Innocence of Islam.
The film, which amongst other things depicted Muhammad as a paedophile, was produced in disputed circumstances by a southern Californian Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a convicted bank fraudster, who initially represented himself as of Israeli Jewish background.
Regardless of its origins or limited aesthetic qualities, the film has certainly succeeded in stirring up emotions. The familiar image of Muslim mobs storming western embassies to avenge hurt to their religion filled newspaper and magazine pages, as commentary focused on why Muslims cannot tolerate criticism of their religion.
The decision earlier this week by the French government to close embassies, cultural centres and schools in about 20 countries, in anticipation of violent protests at the publication by a satirical French magazine of caricatures of Muhammad, reinforces these concerns.
Negative representations of Islam and of Muhammad are nothing new. The emergence of Islam in the 7th century was followed by the rapid expansion of Muslim political power. By the eighth and ninth centuries, this had spread to western Europe, as Spain, Sicily and parts of France were ruled by Muslims.
For hundreds of years Muslim armies and navies were seen as threatening to Europe. Fear and ignorance animated popular, scholarly and religious responses to Islam. At the time of the Crusades, the Muslim opponents of the Christian forces were explained in biblical terms: Muhammad was a cardinal with frustrated papal ambitions; earlier he had been thought of as one god among many worshipped by the “Saracens”. The others, according to one source, included Mars, Plato and Apollo.
In Dante’s Inferno, Muhammad is relegated to the eighth of nine circles of hell as a sower of schism and scandal. Many saw Islam, as some do to this day, in terms of biblical prophecy, a preparation for the final appearance of the antichrist. The 13th-century crusader Oliver of Paderborn claimed that: “Islam began by the sword, was maintained by the sword, and by the sword would be ended.”
Age-old tropes of Islam as barbaric and intolerant continue to flourish. Yet, the expression of revulsion on the part of adherents of religion at what they perceive as insults to their faith is not unique to Islam.